Quantcast

How a Caged Bird Learns to Sing | The Nation

  •  

How a Caged Bird Learns to Sing

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Let me digress for a moment to observe that a Times executive who wrote a book could always count on generous review attention so long as he was retired. As Wilfrid Sheed reminded us in Max Jamison, his novel about criticism: "They were soft, affable people who wouldn't hurt you because they couldn't bear to be hurt themselves. Paternal organizations were built on great piles of spiritual blubber." But the same has not until recently been true lower down the totem pole, for the serfs. And these serfs write a lot of books. When Christopher Lehmann-Haupt and I alternated as daily critics we looked at these books the same as we'd look at any other. If we liked it or it seemed at least symptomatic of something compelling in the larger culture that we wanted to sermonize about, we'd review it. If not, we didn't. Pretty simple. You'll have noticed that in recent years books by Times employees are farmed out to freelancers. They are never reviewed by in-house critics. This, we are told, is to avoid the appearance of conflict of interest. Sounds good. Never mind just how often these outside reviews are actually negative. (I recall two in ten years.) But have you also noticed that this new policy means that all books by Times writers are always reviewed in the daily paper? Minus Saturdays and Sundays, there are 261 book reviews published in the daily New York Times every year. There are 65,000 new books published in the United States every year. Some of these books are more equal than others in the paper of record.

This article is adapted from a lecture that was part of a
series on self-censorship in the media given at New York University. The
lecture series is being published this month in The Business of
Journalism
(New Press).

About the Author

John Leonard
John Leonard, the TV critic for New York magazine, a commentator on CBS Sunday Morning and book critic for The Nation...

Also by the Author

Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, blasphemes not only Islam and Hinduism, but Thatcherism and the advertising industry. He's unkind, too, to V.S. Naipaul. For this they want to kill him?

John Leonard, former literary editor of The Nation, died November 6 at 69. From the archives, his iconic piece on Toni Morrison's Nobel Prize win, in his honor.

Back to Lester Markel, and the paragon I needed to review him. That paragon, clearly, was Ben Bagdikian--a hugely respected, eminently fair-minded, award-winning reporter, and also a gent, who had gone to academe. And he agreed to do the review. And then just when the days before publication of Markel's memoir dwindled down to a precious few, Bagdikian called in a pickle. He had been hired by the Washington Post. And the Washington Post had a policy that prohibited any of its employees from writing for the New York Times. (The New York Times, in fact, had the same policy in reverse, which is why they told me to stop writing a TV column for Newsweek, which is owned by the Washington Post.) Anyway, Ben was stuck. Well, I needed to know, was he still willing to do the review if I could get the Post to make an exception in this one instance, to which of course we had entered into an agreement before he sold his soul to the company store? Yes, he said; he'd already done the work.

So I called Bill McPherson, the editor of the Washington Post Book World, whom I knew from literary cocktail parties, explaining my Markel problem and beseeching him to intercede on my behalf with Post pooh-bah Ben Bradlee, whom I had met once at a Harvard Crimson alumni softball game and another time, I'm sorry to say, in the Hamptons. A long week passed. Finally McPherson called. Bradlee would relent on Bagdikian, on one condition. And what was that condition? It was that I, personally, agree to review a book of Bradlee's choice for the Post. Done, I said, figuring I'd square it somehow with the Times. Which book? Well, Bradlee hadn't made up his mind. OK, so I got my Bagdikian review, which was as scrupulous as I'd hoped, and published it, which stung Markel to furious rebuttal in a letter to the editor, which received from Bagdikian a mildly puzzled response, which correspondence dragged on intolerably until I called it off, after which I never saw Lester Markel in my office again.

But that's not the point of this story. A year later the phone rang, and it was McPherson, and he said: "Bradlee's calling in his chit." Which book, I asked? Well--and McPherson was embarrassed--Sally Quinn is about to publish a book on her year at CBS. That's the one. Many of you are too young to remember that there was a Ben Bradlee before Jason Robards played him in the film version of All the President's Men, and that this Ben Bradlee left his wife for Sally Quinn, a reporter for the Washington Post "Style" section, and that this Sally Quinn then left the Post, very briefly, for a CBS morning show about which most TV critics had been savage, although at least one of us, me, had been lukewarm in Life.

Nor is the point of this story that I refused to write that book review. The point is that Lester Markel had no business in my office, that I had no business trying to find him a publisher or to arrange for a judicious review--and that Bradlee's way is how the big boys play the game. While making sure your girlfriend gets a talked-about review, at the same time sticking it to your principal competitor. Only Bagdikian emerges with honor. Which, some years later, is exactly what I told a class Bagdikian taught in "The Ethics of Journalism" at Berkeley. These students, including my own son, were amused at an anecdote starring their professor, but didn't get the ethics of it. It seemed sort of locker-room to them, as it seemed to grad students from the Columbia Journalism School in a seminar I later taught myself. They were all children of the triumph of a glossier idea of journalism that postures in front of experience, rather than engaging it; that looks in its cynical opportunism for an angle, or a spin, or a take, instead of consulting compass points of principle; that strikes attitudes like matches, the better to admire its wiseguy profile in the mirror of the slicks.

* * *

I am aware that my own regard for books is overly worshipful--one part Hegel, two parts Tinkerbell, with garnishes of Sacred Text, Pure Thought and Counter-Geography--at a time when most of the dead trees in the chain stores have titles like How I Lost Weight, Found God, Smart-Bombed Ragheads, and Changed My Sexual Preference in the Bermuda Triangle. But I also know it's just as hard to write a bad book as a good one, and a lot easier to review one than achieve one, and if book critics in mainstream newspapers and magazines seem to have appointed themselves the hall monitors of an unruly schoolboy culture--this one gets a pass to go to the lavatory; that one must sit in the corner wearing a dunce cap--then it is a condescension and a contempt passed down and internalized from bosses like Bradlee, for whom the whole process is a whimsical scam. I've yet to meet a media heavy who didn't think all of the books by all of his friends deserve fawning reviews. Nor have I met a media heavy who thought I should ever employ as a reviewer anybody who has ever criticized him or his friends. Max Frankel, who accuses me in his autobiography of trying to turn the Times Book Review into a combination of The Village Voice and The New York Review of Books, once called me on the carpet for using Timothy Crouse as a reviewer, because Crouse had made fun of his Washington press corps friends in The Boys on the Bus. Abe Rosenthal not only called me on the carpet for saying nice things on the daily book page about I.F. Stone and Nat Hentoff, but suspended me from the job entirely after I panned a book, The Second Stage, by his friend Betty Friedan. The next thing I knew, they'd killed a sports column I wrote, during the pro football strike, pointing out that the head of the Players Union, Ed Garvey, used to spook for the CIA. This of course goes beyond the butthole politics of the buddy-bond. It's over in another office, where foreign editor Jimmy Greenfield killed a "Private Lives" column I wrote about the Philippines, back when the Frog Prince Ferdinand and his Dragon Lady were still in charge, and playwrights like Ben Cervantes were still in prison, and Greenfield in New York knew more about it than I did in Manila, where a goon in a blue jumpsuit followed me out of the Palace of Culture, all over the landfill in the Bay, unto a lurid jeepney.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size